Apart from literal submersion, how might we attune ourselves to an aquatic life? What will we eat, feel, hear?
And now the radiant sun in ocean sank,
Dragging night after him o'er all the earth
I turned off the light and dissolved into the warm thick dark, hearing it clamp the stream of gases from my lungs into sealed bubbles. The sea was so full of darkness, a space become substance so substantial there could no longer be parts exposed outside of parts or open dimensions. The span of my arms extended a right and a left, but these went no further than the terminations of my own limbs. When I waved my hand the bioluminescent plankton sparkled and died away, without having situated me or them in the lengths and breadths of the oceanic night - Alphonso Lingis
We could be easily dissipated in Lingis' sightless dive or dissolve entirely in Stacey Alaimo's violet-black depths of the 'bathypelagic, abyssalpelagic and hadal zones of the sea where sunlight cannot descend.'
But we must start over. these deep, dark, turbulent waters are too much for us, too far, too soon… too speculative…
Let's begin again
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-life wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
What is anyone’s or any thing's drowning to the water but few more bubbles of CO2 exhaled into it?
Is a successful taking to the undersea merely the inverse of drowning? A temporal extension of Cousteau and Gagnang's aqualung or the steel ball of Barton's bathysphere? A way of conveying air to the foreign body and if so, then is it then just a question of air supply? The air supply to Barton's bathysphere mimicked the umbilical cord requiring, like the feotus, continuous surface support. The tanks of the scuba diver are easily exhausted. And if we cannot evolve quickly enough to stay down for long periods like sea mammals…? Then what?
Looking at where oxygen is to be found in the water and how it comes to be there, we find various models; one is the aforementioned umbilical pump at the surface used, for example, in the US Navy's Sealab projects, another is cavitation - bubble creation - breaking waves pull air below the surface where the wave crest curls forward and plunges deeply into the slope of the wave some distance from the crest.
Other creatures, aside from sea mammals, enact this latter method of externally carrying air underwater for the purpose of respiration. In listing precedents to his bathysphere dives, William Beebe writes that diving with definite apparatus seems to be confined to insects, spiders, and human beings. The common whirligig carries a bubble of air trapped beneath its elytra and the water spider which breathes air yet lives almost entirely underwater by storing multiple air bubbles in a silken bell.
We might try to find another way to breathe underwater, maybe ectosymbiosis, as in the mutualism recently documented between green algae and the spotted salamander:
Here, the algae resides in direct association with the salamander embryos and is thought to benefit from nitrogenous wastes. In return the salamander embryos are perceived to benefit from increased oxygen concentrations produced by the algae.
Anyone shuddering at the thought of a greenish womb might do well to consider the ratio of cells to bacteria in the human body, recently revised to a 50-50 split.
Not quite feeling ourselves today are we?
Can we envisage an algal lung, where we connect with the pneumatocysts (air bladders) of brown algae (such as giant kelp), which store gases including oxygen?
The algae’s air bladders provide the necessary buoyancy to keep it near the surface thus enabling photosynthesis, another oxygen generator. Could we provide something in exchange?
Are you under water? There is no sense of wetness. A dew-drenched lawn is wetter by far than anything I have ever sensed beneath the waves. - William Beebe
Even when diving in the helmet, erstwhile zoologist, William Beebe was always conscious of the falsity of calling the water wet when once immersed in it. Spray blows in his face and leaves it wet, while down below, 'imprisoned air sailing upward, slips through his fingers like balloon pearls, dry, mobile beauty, leaving only a pleasant sensation.'
Do we touch differently in the water?
And now I looked up at our vertical wake of thousands of iridescent swimming bits of air, and, for a moment, forgot whither we were bound." - William Beebe
In order to 'hear the subaquatic language of the sea", poets tell us we must forget; Phlebas the Phoenician forgets in 'the deep sea swell' while
A current under the sea
Picked his bones in whispers.
Pericles sorrows for his wife that 'humming water must o'erwhelm thy corpse', Adrienne Rich, Alphonso Lingis and others find it easy to forget through Nitrogen Narcosis - the rapture of the deep. In ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Rich writes,
...it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
We also hear differently down there: In the water, the submerged outer ear is inundated with liquid. Sounds are conducted to the inner ear by the bones behind and above (parietal) the ear.
Try it by putting a finger in one ear and tapping your skull behind the ear. Drum your fingers on your neck below the blocked ear.
The listening here today is a kind of listening that - whether via hydrophones, on your TV or an aquarium - 'traces a domestication of underwater worlds so they can be represented to us on our own terms on land.' [Asals, 1985]
Bachelard, firmly seated on land, still manages to tell us that "to contemplate the water is to flow out of oneself; it is to dissolve oneself, it is to die." Not an actual death, as Heather Asals clarifies, because "participation in underwater experience, listening to the language of the deep, entails a symbolic death to the world as we know it.”
By attuning ourselves to these aspects of wet sensing, and by combining that attunement with insights from poetics, the sciences and other fields we might prepare ourselves to be, as Antonio was, sea-swallow'd yet not cast again.
Wet Sensing was commissioned by Whitstable Biennale 2018 as part of the ongoing Water Bodies project; an embodied research project "helping humans of all ages evolve into aquatic beings."
Thanks to Matthew De Pulford and Catherine Herbert @ Whitstable Biennale, and my fellow Water Bodies: Sarah Blissett, Ifor Duncan, Tuuli Malla, Zoe Tsaf.